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UF Teams With Retailer To Create “GNC University” For Store Employees

Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

Traci Irani, 352-392-0502
Susan Percival, 352-392-1991, ext. 217
William Riffee, 352-273-6312
Eileen Scott 412-288-4674

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GAINESVILLE, Fla.—When General Nutrition Corporation, which has more than 5,000 GNC stores in the United States, Canada and other countries, wanted to develop an online training program for their employees, the company asked the University of Florida for help.

As a result, the company and university formed a new business-education partnership, creating GNC University, which is a series of professional nutrition education courses available to store employees via distance education.

“About a year ago, GNC sought our help in developing a cost-effective way of further educating their employees with online distance education courses,” said William Riffee, dean of UF’s College of Pharmacy and associate provost for distance, continuing and executive education. “We referred them to UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which has expertise in food science and human nutrition as well as distance education.”

Since then, Susan Percival, a professor in the food science and human nutrition department, and Elaine Turner, an associate professor in the department, developed three professional nutrition education courses to help GNC employees become more knowledgeable about vitamins and other nutrition products.

“The first course, which covers essential nutrients for human health, went online in the fall of 2002,” Percival said. “In spring 2003, we began offering a second course, nutrition in body systems and development, that builds on information in the first course.”

She said more than 1,300 GNC employees have enrolled in the courses. Nearly 90 percent of those who completed the first course on nutrients opted to enroll in the second course.

A third course, nutrition for special populations and situations, will be added to the GNC University distance education program in fall 2003, Percival said. The three courses are available free to GNC employees, who receive a $50 bonus from the company for completing each course.

She said all three courses consist of eight different training modules that cover various nutrition topics, and each course is completed over a 10-week period. The training is delivered online using the WebCT course management system, which allows students to access the interactive educational material from any location at any time of day. The courses do not earn credit for a UF degree.

Turner said each course-training module includes background reading on the topic, a mini-lecture, an activity to apply the module’s concepts, review questions and a quiz.

“Progression through the course depends on mastery of the previous module’s content,” she said. “Teaching assistants in UF’s food science and human nutrition department assist in the day-to-day operation of the courses and provide one-on-one interaction with GNC employees via the Internet.”

Eileen Scott, a senior vice president for human resources and customer service at the Pittsburgh-based firm, said GNC University is helping their retail staff learn more about nutrition to better meet customer needs. It’s the first time the company has worked with a university to help train employees.

“We have significantly less turnover among the employees who are enrolling in these courses,” she said. “They express greater job satisfaction and have the confidence to build relationships with our customers — relationships that are based on our associates’ sound nutritional knowledge.”

Topics in the first course on basic nutrients include information on essential nutrients, their classification, general function and food sources. Module topics cover the importance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, water and minerals. There’s also a module dealing with nutrition research and controversies.

The second course considers the relationship between nutrition and different anatomical and physiological systems. Nutrition needs and concerns during pregnancy and other growth phases are also covered. Module topics include the circulatory, digestive, immune, muscular and skeletal systems as well as nutrition from infancy through adolescence.

The third course applies the nutrition concepts from the two previous courses to special situations and populations. Topics include nutrition for athletes, women, elders and vegetarians. The modules also cover energy balance and obesity, weight control and herbal therapy.

A study by Traci Irani, an assistant professor in UF’s agricultural education and communication department, and Lisa Lundy, a doctoral student in the department, indicates that GNC employees are enrolling in the courses because they want to increase their knowledge in nutrition and develop technological skills. Irani said the business-education partnership could serve as a model for other types of training programs.